The opportunity of a lifetime came out of nowhere three days before the Oscars for IUPUI student Kirat Sandhu – an onstage performance with Lady Gaga at the award show and an unequivocal platform to share her experience with sexual assault.
A solo by Gaga singing “Til It Happens to You” would have obliged a standing ovation. Couple that with fifty survivors surrounding her and it became one of the most-talked-about moments from the night. The spotlight has been shining down on Sandhu but it doesn’t make up for what happened to her.
“These 15 minutes of fame and meeting all these celebrities – if I could give it all back and not have what happened to me happen, then I would in a second,” she said.
Originally, the performance was to consist of only 12 survivors, all from the movie, “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. Then, the number jumped to 50. Some were known for being activists and were asked to attend. Sandhu was the only one asked by It’s On Us, a bystander intervention campaign on college campuses.
IUPUI was one of the first schools to sign onto the campaign in 2014, which meant committing itself to cultivating a community of awareness surrounding sexual assault. Undergraduate student body president Niki DaSilva explained the importance of sexual assault campaigns. This is more than a women’s issue. Education on how to protect ourselves and help others, whether through intervention or supplying resources, is a major step in the right direction.
“We can no longer be bystanders, we have to take action. It's On Us provides a catalyst for this,” DaSilva said.
Sandhu received the call from It’s On Us the Thursday before the Oscars. In the hope of not leaking the performance to the media, she was given few details but trusted the organization and hopped on a plane to Los Angeles that night. The group rehearsed and shared stories. Exactly three times during the interview, Sandhu reiterated how she valued meeting the other survivors more than anyone else.
For her, the night wasn’t about meeting celebrities.
She wants her career to focus on sexual assault prevention. Much of what has been done in terms of sexual assault has been reactive, which is why it gets talked about a lot on college campuses. She said a lot of the proactive approaches are more about engaging boys in high school. This is problematic not only because this behavior often begins in the early stages of childhood, but men can be victims of sexual assault too.
“That’s my hope with our next generation … That we start earlier. That we don’t wait for the statistics to come in before we have to act,” she said.
But, she is all too aware of the importance of a proper reaction when sexual assault does occur.
Pressure existed from certain family members to push aside the harm her cousins caused when she was between five and seven years old. As a result, Sandhu admitted she’s felt liberated since the Oscar weekend. Now, she views the neutral attitude exhibited by her family members to be in line with the danger of silence.
“Nobody acted like they didn’t believe me. They acted like they couldn’t believe that I had the nerve to talk about it,” she said.
Sandhu also noted her insecurity with people calling her courageous for coming forward. She explained that some may never find themselves ready to speak out and that’s okay. Silence could be their way of compartmentalizing, but that doesn’t make them any less brave.
Her advice to someone who has been sexually assaulted is simple, “You’re not alone. Unfortunately, this happens to so many people.” While in college, Sandhu said sexual assault is as common as 1-in-5 women and 1-in-16 men.
At IUPUI, the Office of Health and Wellness Promotion is planning a sexual assault awareness month in April. Sandhu and the student government are planning several It’s On Us action events to be on the lookout for.
Fifty survivors stood together, Twitter trends followed almost instantly, but in Sandhu’s words, “It was about so much more than that.”